Interviews Stories

Ethan Lim: Former Homeschooler & National Gymnast, Stellar Student

From the Editor: I gained my first insights into Ethan Lim’s fascinating learning experiences when reading a book authored by his mother, Wendy Koh. In Fun-filled Math Conversations with Your Child, Wendy recounted her opening lines when introducing mathematical ideas to her son whom she affectionately refers to as Boy. Those autobiographic accounts somewhat immortalized my image of Boy as a young homeschooler who is still discovering elementary Mathematics – until I read Wendy’s announcement of Boy’s graduation with a Diploma from a local polytechnic! Boy has traversed his teen years and grown into a young man with an impressive bag of achievements. I thought that it was time to update that his story. Our intern, Maryam Kiyani, interviewed Ethan Lim about his journey as a student, a competitive gymnast and an avid educator while studying at a tertiary institution.

Tell us a little bit about yourself! Of course, we have background information about you, but humour us, how do you describe yourself?

I’m Ethan. I was homeschooled since my parents were deciding whether or not to send me to kindergarten. Then, I was homeschooled until I was 16 years old before taking my IGCSE and enrolling at Temasek Polytechnic where I studied Early Childhood Development and Education. Having graduated, I’m now serving my National Service.

My mom introduced me to gymnastics when I was four years old. Over time, my training intensified in tandem with competitive levels. I had the honour of representing Singapore in several competitions over the four years while I was with the National squad. After resigning from the National squad in 2020, I returned to train at the club I was part of since I was 8 years old.

What are some of your most significant memories of being educated at home?

To some extent, some of the things I did were similar to what students would typically do. For example, at the primary level, I used to have a fixed weekly schedule. On Wednesdays, I would have Chinese tuition. I would have tasks that my mom would assign to me. For English, I would read certain texts whether they were religious texts from the Bible or passages from storybooks. This evolved into reading passages for comprehension exercises.

However, there were also many things that my mom used to do with me that I now realise are different from what most primary school kids would experience. She would take me to the market in the morning to give me a lot of practice at counting money, talking to shop uncles and aunties, and buying chicken as well as other groceries. She would also give me puzzles and questions that we would discuss at the coffee shop together.

My most significant memories came from my ability to try many things. These include sailing and public speaking through the Model United Nations programme.

You mentioned memories of going to the market with your mother and being taught practical skills. Do you feel that such experiences have prepared you in some ways better than your school-going peers?

Perhaps it did. Those experiences made me more comfortable interacting with people. I remember how my poly friends from the gym were a little more hesitant to speak to the uncles and aunties when buying things. Perhaps some of them happened to be less sociable at the time but I attribute my ability to interact comfortably with people from all walks of life to the experiences that I had while homeschooling. So, I think it’s a myth that homeschoolers cannot be sociable.

What was adjusting from homeschooling to life like at the Polytechnic?

Personally, it wasn’t a huge transition. The only difference was having to wake up early. Luckily, it wasn’t the same as going to a JC (Junior College) where you’d have to wake up early every day. The Polytechnic offers more flexibility. Some of my classes started at 11 am while some started at 9 am. It depended on the modules you were taking. That was one of the struggles I had.

The other struggle that I had during my first year at the Polytechnic was understanding my role when doing project work. Whether a child has been placed in situations to lead a group depends on his or her homeschooling experience. It took me a while to understand group dynamics and I didn’t know how to be assertive. This brought down my grades in the first semester. However, I learned that if you know what you’re doing, you should be sure of yourself and not let others impose their ways on you.

These two issues notwithstanding, I had an otherwise easy transition. I didn’t struggle with making friends; I found that to be easy!

Ethan fusing his talent in gymnastics with what he learned in early childhood education – through coaching. Image credit: Ethan Lim

What tips would you give to any homeschooled students preparing to enter school in their teens, be it college or polytechnic?

Firstly, don’t close yourself off. Be open to making new friends. One of the first things I realised was not to make assumptions about what people might think of homeschoolers. I thought that if I told anyone about my background, I might be struck by their preconceived notions of homeschoolers. I used to think that I needed to lie about where I went to school but upon entering into conversations, I found people to be open about getting to know others. It turned out not to be a norm to ask another person which secondary school they were from. So, people got to know me first and they perceived me to be a “normal guy.” It was only much later upon getting to know one another, that they would find out about my homeschooling background and would be surprised.

Secondly, figure out your studying style and what works best for you. My style is a little different from my peers and I’m really glad to have discovered and practise it since my secondary education days. I need a lot of sensory stimulation to study effectively. For example, I need to be out in the open where there’s a lot of noise or watch a show while studying. I know that some people prefer to study in a quiet place and listen to relaxing music instead, so find whatever works for you.

Have your friends at the polytechnic and you ever compared and discussed your respective educational experiences? In what ways were your experiences similar or different to that of your peers?

I took the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) like everyone else. Most of my peers were previously from the ITE (Institute of Technical Education) so they took the N Level and O Level examinations while I took the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) examinations, which are equivalent to the O Level examinations that Singaporean students usually take.

What I found interesting is how some of my friends think that my social skills are a lot better compared to the others in school, which was a little bit unexpected. I guess this was due to the exposure that I had interacting with different communities whether at the church or through my training and coaching.

How has your early education shaped your view of the world? How has it affected your attitude to pursuing education as a young adult?

One of the things that I’m most grateful for about my time as a homeschooler is the ability to just take my time. While many of my peers from the mainstream education system shared with me about experiencing burnout, I’ve never really had that problem.

At the primary school level, we took things really slow and picked up the rigour only when I was in Primary 5. Then, some things simply “clicked” and I could retain much more information. I was able to learn in that one and a half years (before the PSLE) what my peers spent learning for six years in school. I think this was beneficial for me.

At the secondary level, I was driven by a desire to learn and be on par academically with the people around me. Yet, I didn’t fall into the pattern of studying for the sake of doing it – the way that others might succumb to. Waking up early to go to school and having the pressure to send in homework were some of the things that I did not have to do at that time. From my experience at the polytechnic, these factors often contribute to fatigue and lethargy.

Being homeschooled for the first ten years of my formal education turned out to be good for me. These years are also a child’s formative period. Not having experienced mental or physical burnout before, I had a higher capacity to manage it as I grow older.

My attitude towards education is to study for the sake of learning and making something out of my life. I think that goes for most homeschoolers. The homeschoolers that I’ve met from my batch are smart. They are in medical schools, studying law, or already pursuing their degrees. Some are running their own businesses.

You have chosen to pursue a course in Early Childhood Education, which is often seen as a female-dominated field. Could you share your feelings on this?

I really dislike such stereotypes. I think that they can be very damaging to the industry by creating unnecessary fear. I know many people who have rather “fatherly hearts” for children, but these feelings don’t manifest themselves in choosing the Early Childhood Education field. The percentage of men in my class was around 9-10%.

Perhaps the older generation tends to be a lot more unsure about men going into this field compared to the younger generation who is a lot more accepting. I also know of more men joining the field later on and becoming educators. I’ve heard of a group that comprises childhood educators called, “Men in Preschool” on Instagram.

Left: Ethan’s mom, Wendy Koh, sharing insights on how she incorporated gymnastics into their learning at home. Right: Ethan performing the Rings event at the Singapore Open 2018. Image credit: Wendy Koh

Tell us more about your pursuits in gymnastics. How do you balance your studies with your training, competition and coaching responsibilities?

I’m a very structured person. It’s not something that my mom taught me but it was simply something that I developed on my own. I’ve always kept to a routine since my secondary level years and this was especially so upon entering Poly. I like to log my activities into my calendar. If I have training or know that I need to study, I will log in and commit to it. Sundays are usually reserved for my coaching. So, if I know that I need to coach a lesson, I will reserve two hours during the week to plan the lesson. I’ll also schedule a time to meet and go out with my friends. 

We hear that you have done well in your course, even attaining a couple of awards. Congratulations! Can you share about these accolades?

Thank you! Sporting-wise, I’ve received scholarships for being part of the national team. I received one in the High Performance Category after winning a medal in a regional competition, a South East Asian gymnastics competition in 2017. Following that, I received the Peter Lim Scholarship twice at a tertiary level when I was in Poly.

Academically, I have also received the Director’s List Award and graduated with a diploma with merit for being in the top 10% of the cohort. Having topped one of the modules in my final semester called “Family and Community Partnership,” I got a PAP Community Foundation prize.

Image credit: Wendy Koh

We see that you are kind of fusing your talent in gymnastics with what you learned in early childhood education through coaching. Do you see it continuing in the future?

I started coaching before going into the early childhood education programme. Coaching was one of the things that inspired me to go into early childhood in the first place. I completed my IGCSE exams in 2017 at 15 years old. I began coaching in 2018, the moment I was eligible to do so. I started out with a younger age group of about 5-6 years old, on a recreational, not competitive, basis. I realised that I really enjoyed those classes. That influenced my decision to choose early childhood as a diploma course. 

I think what I learned through gymnastics and during my early childhood course somewhat merged. I gained hands-on experience working with children from coaching and developed a better understanding of children from poly.

What about coaching made you want to work with children that age?

I like working with children in that age group the most as they were the most fun and rewarding to teach. However, the 5-6 age group was not the only group that I coached. I coached for 5 hours on Sunday mornings from around 9 to 2 o’clock. Approximately, two of the classes comprise children from the kindergarten age group. So, the rest of them would be older in age or children with special needs.

Major Sporting Achievements:

  • 1st Individual All-Around (IAA) National Championships 2022 (Senior)
  • 4th Pommel Asian Junior Cup 2019 (Junior)
  • 1st Team SG Open 2019 (Junior)
  • 2nd IAA SG Open 2019 (Junior)
  • 1st IAA National Championships 2019 (Junior)

Sports Awards Received: 

  • Peter Lim Scholarship 2017, 2019, 2020
  • Chiam See Tong Sports Fund

Image credit: Singapore Gymnastics

Having attained your Diploma, do you have plans for your career or are you still considering options?

I’ve been accepted to study Psychology at SMU. Although I really enjoyed coaching younger children when I started coaching a few years ago, right now, I feel most passionate about my classes that comprise children with special needs. I also had a chance to engage with them during my internships for my Early Childhood Education course. To add, I worked for two months with Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore. I see serving more children with special needs in future. Part of the reason that I chose to pursue a degree in psychology is that I feel that it would help give me a more holistic understanding of the field compared to if I were to continue with a programme in Early Childhood Education.

As for a specific career though, I already have the next 6 years planned out for me with NS and University, so I plan to decide after that.

Where does gymnastics fit in all your plans?

I left the gymnastics team in 2020. I was undergoing a major burnout, especially over the Covid period. I do miss it though because I enjoy the sport. I like flipping in the air! Gymnastics has been my way to de-stress and I have been able to compartmentalise school and gymnastics. However, although I’m good at it, it is not going to be my focus. If I cannot cope with balancing my studies at the university and coaching in gymnastics, I will prioritise my studies.

Ethan’s unique journey fuelled his passion for the education sector and a growing interest in the world of children with special needs. Image credit: Temasek Polytechnic Facebook Page

Having been homeschooled, and undergoing education to attain a diploma in early childhood education, give us a glimpse of what you believe education is or should be.

That’s a very good question. I think one can thrive whether they are in school or homeschooled during their formative years. Education is about the holistic development of children. They should be given opportunities to grow socially, academically and physically. It should lead children to realise their place in their community. Offering a perspective from someone who was homeschooled, I think that parents should choose the educational path that they believe will check all of those boxes for their child.

What do you seek to learn about the field of special needs and in what areas do you want to contribute where children with special needs are concerned?

I was thinking about this just this week, honestly. I don’t know exactly what I would do in future but I will share my thought process thus far. Initially, I looked towards working on the ground as an educator to children with special needs. Later on, I thought a better goal would be a principal at a special needs school so, I envisioned starting out as a teacher and working my way up to becoming a principal.

However, having experienced working in a school for special needs, I realised that there is a lot of potential for improvement and that there are many more ways to bring about change to the sector than becoming a teacher and/or principal. I thought about society’s understanding of special needs, its views on the importance of these children and their needs, as well as the needs of parents and teachers. Eventually, I thought about the prevailing policies that govern these aspects. I decided that while taking psychology at the university, I could also take a minor in political science and learn how policies affect this field. Then, I hope to reach a better decision on what I can do regarding children with special needs in the future!

But first, NS right? What are your thoughts? Any anxiety? Are you doing anything to prepare for it?

I haven’t been doing much specific preparation. I’ve just been running, training and working out. The only thing that I’m really worried about is getting less than 6 hours of sleep. My brain cannot function on anything less than 6 hours! Perhaps it’s fine though, I don’t think I’ll use my brain that much in NS anyway. (laughs)

Ethan and his parents at his Basic Military Training graduation. He continues to excel while serving in National Service as his platoon’s Best Recruit.

We hope that you have enjoyed reading about these insights into Ethan’s educational journey upon attaining his O-level qualifications. Ethan’s story is a testimony that homeschoolers are more than capable of adjusting to the rigours of education and social expectations; they can excel both in mainstream educational settings and other pursuits of their choice!